Friday, 10 February 2012

sync or swim

Concerning the anomalies of Velar Softening (blog, yesterday), the other side of the coin concerns the problem of spelling words in which the base form or stem has c or g, but we want to follow this with an e, i, y without implying the change from k, g to s, dʒ. (Compare the regular ‘lexical spelling’ principle which gives us this alternation in pairs such as electricelectricity, rigo(u)rrigid, where the spelling stays constant but the pronunciation changes.)

The word microphone ˈmaɪkrəfəʊn is commonly shortened to maɪk. How do we spell this shortened form? If we just truncate the spelling of the full form we get mic, which looks as if it should mean mɪk. If we add e to signal a long vowel (compare rid rɪdride raɪd) it collides with mice maɪs. If we change c to k it looks like the man’s name Mike and we lose the link with mic-. Insoluble problem.

In long-established words a spelling adjustment may be entrenched. Alongside hundreds of examples like electricelectricity we have opaque (-k) — opacity (-s-), where the switch from c to qu in the adjective enables us to use the final silent e in the usual way. (This would argue for spelling maɪk as mique.) And anyhow, given revoke — revocation (from Latin -vŏc-), you might expect opake for opaque. If the spelling opaque owes something to French, on the other hand, compare the French révoquer, which has not led us to spell the English word as revoque.

Singers who mime to a video track have to synchronize their lip movements with those they see on the screen. Originally, I suppose, this was known as lip-synchronizing, but nowadays we normally shorten this in speech to ˈlɪp ˌsɪŋkɪŋ. The same applies to many other uses of synchronize, synchronization. The soundtrack is not quite in sync with the picture, things are out of sync. (But for synchronizing your watches and synchronized swimming we keep the long form.)

When we come to write the ing-form down we have something of a problem. Wikipedia currently has one article entitled Lip sync and another entitled Lip-synching in music. The spelling sync is fine for the base form, but when we add -ing we may feel the need for the h. (Though Google records three million-odd hits for the awkward syncing, which is the spelling Apple uses. A Google search on synching evokes “Did you mean syncing?).

Perhaps we should launch a campaign to spell it synquing.


  1. I think mic is a very special case. Mike would be a very obvious spelling, and my impression is that it used to be common. However, for a long time, any audio equipment to which a microphone could be attached had a jack-plug socket labelled MIC.

    1. I also remember mike was used rather than mic.

      Good point about the sockets, I never thought of that! That takes a lot off the puzzlement over the counter-intuitive spelling.

  2. Veg is similar to mic/mike in not having an obvious spelling.

  3. Certainly in the circles I grew up in, electricity was pronounced with an anomalous z.

  4. Another example is the word pronounced peskə'tɛəriən, meaning someone who eats fish and seafood but no other meats. The most common spelling is pescetarian, which to me looks like pesə'tɛəriən. (Regular spelling would require pescatarian or pesketarian.)

    There are some older examples as well: recce and arced/arcing.

  5. This is one reason why I prefer "synch" to "sync" as a base form, even given the risk of miscuing a "cinch" pronunciation. The other is that splitting the ch digraph removes a link to the Greek etyomology.

    After 10 years, Samuel Bayer's is still the definitive webrant on the "mike"/"mic" issue.

    My ranking of awkwardness of dʒ spellings:

    #3: "Reggie" and "veggie";

    #2: "Reg" and "veg";

    #1: "Rego" and "vego". Bloody Aussies.

    1. >The word microphone ˈmaɪkrəfəʊn is commonly shortened to maɪk. How do we spell this shortened form? ... If we change c to k it looks like the man’s name Mike and we lose the link with mic-. Insoluble problem.<

      It's easily soluble, and has already been solved: mike. Audio engineers etc. might prefer the spellings mic, miced and micing but the rest of the English-speaking (or rather -writing) world had already been writing mike, miked, miking. It doesn't look like the man's name Mike except if it acquires a cap M. We don't miss the link with mic- because the morpheme is not mic- but micro-, and the abbreviation lacks the -ro- however it's spelt.

      Used to be, David? Was used, Lipman? Unless you fear pedantic techies peeving that we lay folk don't spell their technical jargon the way they like, why not still use "mike"?

      Yes, mike sockets are marked MIC, but that doesn't mean I have to use mic as a word any more than, say, aux or gnd (ground).

      Thanks for your link, Molly. You say "rant" but I say that he puts forward some sound reasoned arguments in support of his view.

    2. Yes, "was used rather than mic", and that's different today, at least in my impression. That doesn't mean I'm writing 'mic'.

  6. This is one reason why I prefer "synch" to "sync" as a base form, even given the risk of miscuing a "cinch" pronunciation.

    Like happened with conch...

  7. Remember the 'famous' sketch 'The sink is out of sync'? Was that in Monty Python's Flying Circus?

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  9. Then, we have to expect something like [ˈsɪŋkɪŋ]and [ˈmaɪkkɪŋ]? What is wrong with the [ˈsɪŋɪŋ]and [ˈmaɪkɪŋ]if so?

    I am not sure that I know at least 50000 words in English. It may or may not be so, though, but I am sure that I do not know the lexical components of many of them, other than just think and talk about their linguistic components just as having the similar enjoyment like having a good coffee or watching a good movie.

    The problems, however, are not just the finding of their generative morphology or grammar (or of the natural tendencies in a language growth) from their architectural typology but the overall linguistic makeup on where one begins, ends, or syntheses if we are to take the assumption that phonological representation determine a word’s pronunciation if its orthography is not rule governed.

    Then, why do we need the rule ‘a consonant before ‘–ing’ should be doubled when the preceding vowel is stressed’, for example, in a case like where the phonetic representation of 'swimming' is /ˈswɪmɪŋ/, anyway? Or another problem is like whether ‘syn’ in ‘synchronize’ has any lexical meaning or it is so far just a derivational morpheme like -mit in ‘submit’ or ‘admit’ to make a word meaningful.

  10. A clerihew:

    William Blake
    Always spelled the word opake.
    "If anyone says that I'm just a word wrecker,
    Tell them to use a spelling chequer."

    The OED says that the spelling opaque was rare until the 19th century, whereas the word has been in use since the early 17th, with a 15th-century outlier.

    Pete: I'm a bit surprised that the classicizing spelling piscitarian isn't used instead. Eheu fugaces.

  11. The spelling "mike" is I think the only one that suggests to me the correct pronunciation (at least, the only reasonable spelling, discounting "myke"). In particular, "mique" looks like it should be homophonous with "meek", per the pronunciation of I think every other common word ending "-ique" (except "communiqué" written without the accent).

    As others have said, the collision of "mike" with the name "Mike" isn't a serious one: even in speech these homophones rarely cause any confusion, and written examples where they would be confused as homonyms (i.e. where "mike" appears in capitalised position) will be even rarer.

    1. P,S. At a stretch there's "micke", which possibly suggests the correct pronunciation per the well-known name David Icke, though I'd hazard a guess that to many people it would suggest the pronunciation "mickey".

    2. P.P.S. despite all that, I would still use "mic", regardless of spelling pronunciations, just because I think it is more common. I share the hunch that this arises due to socket labelling.

      As a very small and anecdotal sample, I have an email folder relating to discussion of operating the PA system in a large local church over the period of some years, and it is clear that "mic" is overwhelmingly the preferred pronunciation; of the very small handful of examples of "mike", most are in fact by a person who usually uses "mic".

    3. clear that "mic" is overwhelmingly the preferred pronunciation

      No, it's not the preferred pronunciation, it's the preferred spelling.

  12. The spelling mike doesn't entirely collide with the name Mike because one is lower case and the other isn't.

    This question is a part of the growing phenomenon of abbrevo slang where a lot of abbreviated spellings remove their morphemic connections.

    This is particularly the case for phonemes such as /ʒ/ and /dʒ/ where the word internal pronunciations are derived from foot-level spelling representations e.g. Pleasure and Usual; Legend and Tragic.

    Solving this for /dʒ/ gives us ledge and tradge, obscuring the morphological links, but they are at least legible to anyone familiar with standard English spelling.

    In the case of /ʒ/ there is no incontrovertible bi-directional word-final spelling, so perhaps we have to use zh, something which is not part of the normal spelling system, and people are not all familiar with it.

    This generates Plezh from Pleasure, and perhaps Uzh or Uzhe for usual, something I am unhappy with, so I use yoozh, a spelling I find funny but so disconnected from usual that it is severely problematic.

    Over at the economist, Johnson discusses it, and my examples are lifted from there.

  13. Don't forget when words with word-final -ic get used as regular verbs, the same problems arise when adding the endings -ing, -ed. Here we seem to have settled on converting the c to ck (e.g., politicking, politicked), though those still seem odd-looking to me.

  14. I just came across the word "specced" as a form of "spec" (having certain specifications, used in an article on consumer electronics). I imagine the pronunciation to be /spɛkt/, but the spelling was a bit disconcerting at first. I would have expected "specked" but then again this overlaps with the existing verb "speck".

  15. Martin, that one's doubly interesting, since the original clipping itself shifted /s/ to /k/.